Growing Up Black: A Stories from the Stage Special
What does it mean to grow up Black in America, a country too often divided by race? Bullied by a group of kids, Ben finds out he is not alone, and Angie learns about how far we have come, and how far we have to go in a chance encounter with a police officer. These Webby-winning true stories were recorded at home during the height of the pandemic.
BEN CUNNINGHAM: These images fed the white kids
in my neighborhood ammunition
to terrorize me, even in a game of tag.
ANGIE CHATMAN: I struggled and I strained.
And then I looked for help, but I wasn't gonna cry.
I was not gonna give him the satisfaction.
My dad was silent, holding back tears of rage,
because going to the police
meant nothing would be accomplished.
At age six,
the only person that I knew that smoked cigarettes
was my mother.
I never knew that junior high kids smoked cigarettes,
but there are a bunch of them standing in front of my porch,
and Mr. O'Leary's son has this funny-looking cigarette,
and he's angry, because every time he tries to light it,
the wind blows out the flame,
and he really, really wants to tell me something.
So I lean my head in closer to get a better look,
and he lights it.
"Go back to where you came from, you effing monkey!"
(imitates small explosion)
The firecracker hit me underneath the eye
and exploded just before it landed on the ground.
It's almost the Fourth of July,
and there are red, white, and blue flags
going up and down the main street.
Stars and stripes everywhere.
Kids lighting fireworks night and day.
I'm the only Black kid living in this neighborhood,
and the youths in this town are being very patriotic.
"Go back to Africa!"
They called me the n-word and walked away smiling.
At age six, the n-word is a new word in my vocabulary.
That night, my dad immediately took me
to Mr. O'Leary's house, and they had some words.
"Honest Injun, I swear to God,
"my kid didn't throw a firecracker at your kid.
I know my kid the way that you know your... boy."
My dad was silent, holding back tears of rage,
because Mr. O'Leary was a public official,
so going to the police meant nothing would be accomplished.
In public, Mr. O'Leary was a stand-up kind of guy.
In private, you would discover that Mr. O'Leary's small mind
had this huge encyclopedia of racial slurs
for anyone that didn't look like him
or go to the same church.
But he'd get them confused.
So he classified us as "spear-chuckers."
I think the word "spear-chucker"
provided him with a visual aid
so he didn't get his racial slurs confused.
A few days later,
everyone was playing in the park,
the big kids were playing with the little kids,
and all was forgotten.
They scooped me up and put me in this shopping cart.
We just laughed like it was an amusement park ride.
They flipped the shopping cart over,
trapped me underneath,
and Patrick, the heaviest kid, sat on top.
I cried hysterically
with my face pressed against the bars,
and Mr. O'Leary's son looked me in the eyes, and it was clear:
all was not forgotten.
(imitates laughing): "Who did we catch? Yeah!
Kunta Kinte!" FromRoots.
"A monkey in a cage."
He spit in my face, and the others spit at me.
The little kids danced around the shopping cart,
laughing, pointing, making monkey sounds,
and Patrick sat on top.
Now, many of these kids
have family that are in law enforcement.
Most of these kids will grow up
dreaming of becoming a police officer,
and some will.
It's been over ten minutes now, and I can't breathe.
I'm having an asthma attack.
So they let me go.
Not because they're concerned, but because...
(imitates laughing): "It's freaking hilarious!
"Look at him, look at him making that sound!
Look at him go..." (imitates wheezing)
"Go back to where you came from."
So I spent a lot of time at home, watching TV,
seeing images of where I came from
and who I was supposed to be.
that glorified a racist past.
Brought to you by Walt Disney,
Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, and the Three Stooges.
White people in blackface,
Black people turning sheet-white
when they thought they "sees a ghost."
Little African boy, black as coal,
trying to make rabbit stew.
Darkest Africa with Al Jolson-like creatures
dancing across the screen with jazz hands,
And I will never forget The Jungle Book,
with an ape singing that song:
"I Want to Be Just Like You."
These images fed the white kids in my neighborhood
ammunition to terrorize me, even in a game of tag.
"Eenie meenie miney mo."
It's just us little kids on my porch.
(imitates laughing): "Catch a (bleep) by the toe!
"Hey, Blackie, we know how to find you in the dark.
"All you gotta do is smile.
Just like in the cartoons."
I've been on this planet for six years,
and that joke wasn't funny the first time,
and it's not funny now.
Suddenly, the game stops,
because the big kids are coming down the street,
and everyone is scared,
because this time, the big kids are Black,
walking down the street in an all-white neighborhood.
They're not walking, they are strutting.
They have these huge Afros,
silk shirts with collars going out to here,
and bell-bottom pants.
One of them has his boom box up on his shoulder,
sunglasses, and he's smoking this cigarette.
He shuts off the radio and he looks at me.
"Say, my man, these white kids messing with you?
"Black man, I am talking to you.
I said, 'Are these white boys messing with you?'"
I don't know what to say.
"White boy, come here.
Fat boy. Yeah, you, come here."
Eddie has never said or done anything racist.
"Are you messing with my man?
I said, 'Are you messing with my man?'"
All Eddie can say is, (stammering): "No, sir."
(stammering): "No, sir."
"You better not be messing with my man.
He flicked his cigarette at his chest
and Eddie looked like he was going to wet his pants
and cry at the same time.
"If any of you whiteys mess with my man, we will be back.
I just held up my tiny fist.
They turned that radio back on
and they just strutted down the street
without a care in the world.
They don't care that there was a police officer
who lived across the street.
They went right past the parents' houses
that called me the n-word
and down the hill past that nasty schoolteacher.
And they just disappeared.
The only thing that you could hear was the music playing,
and I never saw them again.
And we went back to... the game.
But this time, things were different.
(stammering): "Catch a...
"Catch a tiger by the toe.
"If he hollers, let him go.
Out goes Y-O-U."
Ben's courage in sharing this story gives us insight
into his difficult experiences, and his powerful storytelling
helps us understand and feel compassion.
We are grateful for this window on his young life.
So Amanda and I are wondering, does this story speak to
your own childhood of growing up Black?
And, if not, do you still feel like you can identify with Ben
even if his experiences may have been different from your own?
Has knowing his story changed you in some way?
If you've been moved by Ben's experiences as a child,
please help to sustain important stories like his
as we go through this year of reckoning,
of celebrating our differences, and of national healing.
That means making a financial contribution
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Because one by one,
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We laugh and cry together,
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And sometimes, as in the case of "Growing Up Black,"
we might be shocked or outraged.
Yet we're given hope that things can get better.
Rather than dividing us,
stories like Ben's bring us all closer together,
and we could all use a little bit more of that these days.
Ben's courage in sharing one of the most difficult
and painful memories of his childhood
could not have been easy.
And Amanda and I can relate to that,
because we've also both told stories
here onStories From the Stage.
I floated through another level four rapid,
because there was no other option.
There was nothing else that I could do.
It would have been
breathtaking had I been able to breathe.
It would have been beautiful
if I wasn't so terrified.
I can tell you, it's, it's hard, it's really hard
to pour your heart out
in front of complete strangers
and hoping they will relate
and connect with your experience,
hopefully without too much judgment.
You know, when I told a story right here
in this studio in front of a live audience, I didn't know
I would get through it necessarily.
I mean, while it was hard, it was a challenge,
it was also really rewarding to finally tell a story
publicly and get some closure on that period in my life.
Diva healed my heart when I thought it was
supposed to stay broken.
And she turned my fear of four-legged monsters
into an unconditional
and everlasting love that I will carry with me
for the rest of my life.
These are stories that must be told.
The more difficult, the more uplifting,
the more hilarious,
the better, the more healing,
especially during these tough times.
Thanks to the financial support from good people like you,
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The fine art of storytelling is as old as humanity itself.
Stories like these can actually break down barriers
to reveal things that we have in common.
Now coming up, we're going to have a story from Angie Chatman
that you do not want to miss.
It's a story about her childhood
that clearly had a profound impact on her life.
And like Ben's story, Angie's is also very personal,
and it will certainly move you just as much as it has moved us.
CHATMAN: Second grade was so boring.
The nuns wore these drab habits,
and their favorite word was, "Shh."
We had to wear uniforms, too.
The girls had navy and gray plaid skirts,
white blouses, a navy cardigan for when it was cold,
navy or white knee-high socks,
and then I wore my brown school shoes.
Everything about second grade was boring,
except for visitor day.
We had once a marine biologist from the Shedd Aquarium.
Another time, an archaeologist
from the Field Museum of Natural History
came to talk about what she did for a living.
But the best part about visitor day is,
we got to wear our own clothes, no uniforms.
And on this particular visitor day,
I'm wearing my favorite light brown knit dress,
and it has pink stripes across the chest.
And then I wore white stockings and my special-occasion
black patent leather shoes with buckle.
And in the afternoon, when our visitor was scheduled to arrive,
a policeman shows up at our classroom door,
and Mrs. Scott, our teacher, invites him in
and introduces him as Officer Stanislavski,
our visitor for the day.
We were to call him Officer Friendly.
Officer Friendly began his talk by explaining that
his job with the Chicago Police Department
was to protect and serve all Americans.
And Lyle in the third row snorted.
And we would have done the same,
because we had seen, two years ago,
when Dr. Martin Luther King
came and marched in Marquette Park,
on the Southwest Side of the city,
the policemen did not protect him.
They protected the white people,
and in fact, those white people stoned Dr. King.
One actually hit his mark on his forehead
and he bled and fell in the street.
The pictures were in the newspaper,
theChicago Defender and theChicago Tribune.
So, for him to say that
he protected all Americans was a fib.
But we were well-behaved students,
and we continued to listen as Officer Friendly
passed around his tools-- his shiny star,
his baton, that was really quite heavy.
And then he asked for a volunteer from the class,
and my hand shot up.
After all, I looked great and I was a teacher's pet.
I did notice that no one else raised their hand.
I got up to the front of the classroom,
and I turned around and I faced my classmates,
and Officer Friendly took out his handcuffs.
And he told me to raise my arms in front of my face,
and he put them on, and they were huge.
after he told me to put my hands down,
the handcuffs fell on the floor with a big clink,
and everybody laughed--
Officer Friendly continued by saying
that for people with really small wrists,
he had a different set of handcuffs,
and he told me to put my arms behind my back.
And even though I was nervous, I complied.
He was an adult, a policeman.
I did what I was told.
And Officer Friendly put those handcuffs on my wrists.
I heard the click as he locked them,
and the metal was cold against my skin.
And I tensed up and tried to get out of the handcuffs.
I struggled and I strained.
And then I looked for help,
and Officer Friendly noticed, and he said,
"You know, if you ask me nicely, I'll let you go."
And I looked at my classmates, and Kevin,
who had never talked to me on the playground
and definitely didn't play with me,
he shook his head no.
And that was like confirmation of what I knew inside.
Officer Friendly was a bully,
and he wasn't going to let me out until I cried uncle.
But I wasn't gonna cry.
I was not going to give him the satisfaction.
Unfortunately, my body didn't comply,
and I felt the warm urine
out of my underwear and down my legs
and into my beautiful black patent leather shoes.
And it was at that moment that Mrs. Scott appeared,
and she stood up and she told Officer Friendly,
"Let her go."
Officer Friendly hesitated,
and I thought he was gonna say no.
But Mrs. Scott said, "Right now, release her."
And he took the keys and he let me go.
And I rubbed my wrists,
because they were sore from where I was struggling.
And I grabbed the paper bag that Mrs. Scott offered me,
knowing that inside was
a clean pair of underwear and some socks.
And I went into the bathroom, changed my clothes, and cried.
When I got back to the classroom,
Officer Friendly had gone,
but he had left me a blue whistle
as a token of appreciation
for helping him show off his supplies.
On the walk home, I took that whistle
and I threw it in the trash in the alley,
and when I got home,
I tried to scrub the urine out of my shoes.
My mother came home and she saw what I had done,
and she asked what had happened.
And I told her, and she said,
"Oh, Angie, I'm so sorry that happened to you."
And while I appreciated the sentiment,
I was disappointed.
You see, my mother had told me
she was Wonder Woman without the bracelets,
and I believed her.
So I thought when this bully did this to me,
she would go and do something,
and she said she couldn't.
He was a policeman,
and I felt like I did when I found out
that there was no Santa Claus.
My mother continued to explain
that as time would go by, change would come.
Things would be different when I got older.
You see, I'm of the generation of Emmett Till,
and those four little girls in Sunday school,
and Huey Newton and Rodney King.
And my mother was right, she didn't lie to me.
Change has come.
But then I think about Ahmaud Arbery,
and Sandra Bland, and George Floyd,
and the problem is not that change hasn't come.
The problem is that not enough change has come.
Not nearly enough change.
(sighs): What a heartbreaking story from Angie Chatman.
To be terrorized by "Officer Friendly"
in front of her second-grade classmates,
and to have her teacher intervene
only after she has an accident.
The sadness of Angie's story has lingered with me
since the very first time that I heard it.
Hearing the story about Angie makes us sad and maybe angry.
Yet Angie's unrelenting spirit gives us hope.
By sharing stories like these and learning what it feels like
to be in the situation, we can focus on similarities
instead of our differences.
Sharing these stories can make us more compassionate
and understanding, can help us discover ways
to treat and see and hear each other
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To share more stories like Angie's,
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Sign up as a sustainer, that's just six dollars a month,
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If you're a regular viewer ofStories From the Stage,
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of people from across all divides--
stories with great purpose from diverse points of view.
We like to say that these
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